When I retired from coaching, number one on my bucket list was to write a book. Since 2013, I have written two books and I’m about ready to dive into book number three. The most enjoyable part of writing these books is the research. I have discovered some amazing things.
In my second book, 27, Two Tales of Perfection, the coach of one of the two state championship teams I researched suddenly left his job and moved his family out of town. Over 55 years later, I heard stories of possible reasons for his abrupt departure.
Some people thought he had run up a mountain of bills. He left to avoid payment of these bills. Other people thought he had infuriated a school board member. His rough treatment of his son was listed as the reason for the fast departure.
As it turned out, none of it was true. As I researched the book, I located the coach’s daughter. She told a much different story. The one year Bob Ihrig coached the Clatonia High School football, basketball and track teams, sports reached new highs for the tiny community in southeast Nebraska.
The first year football team only lost two games and the basketball team was the undefeated state champion. Ihrig not only coached those teams, but played alongside his high school athletes. He would run the ball with only pads in his pants and expect the players to tackle him. In basketball, he was the toughest player on the court.
No one knew that Bob Ihrig had grown up with a bad heart. He had been discharged from the Army for health reasons. Bob never played high school or college sports because of his weak heart. Yet, he was the running back during football practices and the post player on the basketball court. It cost him.
His daughter, Pam, told me he came back from the doctor’s office shortly after his team had celebrated their state championship. It was the only time she saw her dad cry. The doctor told him to get out of coaching or he would die.
Bob and his family left town and only one close friend knew the reason why. Only one player knew and he never told anyone. A few years later, Bob decided to coach a prison baseball team. His heart gave out. Five years after his Clatonia team won the state championship, their coach was dead. Only with my research did people find out the real story.
My research is just about over for a book I’m about to write about a black man who grew up in Marshall, Missouri. In 1960, Wilson Fitzpatrick tried to get a coaching job in an Omaha suburb. He was told the Papillion school district wasn’t ready for a black coach.
Wilson had been the leading scorer on the University of Nebraska basketball team in 1958. In 1959, he helped coach the Nebraska team as he gained enough credits for graduation. Now he wanted his own coaching job.
Known throughout the state of Nebraska for his heroics on the basketball court, Wilson finally found a teaching and coaching job in the small southeastern town of Lewiston, Nebraska. Not a single African-American had ever lived in Lewiston, Nebraska.
Wilson stayed only five years, but he made his mark. Almost everyone that ever had Wilson in the classroom proclaim him the best teacher they ever experienced. Despite a lack of size, Wilson got every ounce of potential out of his athletes. All these years later, Lewiston is still honoring their favorite teacher and coach.
Of course there were people in Lewiston that didn’t want a black man in their school system. With professionalism, intelligence and personality, Wilson won every single bigot over. Lewiston had diversity before diversity was a word that meant much.
I wanted to find out what made Wilson the man that made such a mark in Lewiston. My research found as big of surprise as Bob Ihrig’s bad heart. First I hit the internet to find out about Marshall, Missouri. I found out that a jazz singer, an actor, a contestant on television show, Survivor and a couple of professional football players were the most notable people that had called Marshall home. All were white.
As I researched Wilson and his classmates, I found a man by the name of Hank Mason. Hank had played baseball and basketball with Wilson. They both grew up in Marshall, but they didn’t graduate from Marshall. No black student graduated from Marshall High School until the mid-1960’s. Black high school students were bused to Sedalia, a 30 mile bus ride one way, to attend Hubbard School, an all-black high school.
Their athletic achievements were significant, but it’s what they did later in life that was most significant. What I didn’t tell you was during Wilson’s one year playing basketball at Nebraska, his team beat nationally number one ranked teams in back to back games.
The first was a win over a Wilt Chamberlain-led Kansas team. After that loss, Kansas State, with Bob Boozer leading the way, replaced Kansas as number one. The Cornhuskers, led by Fitzpatrick, beat Kansas State. I’m not sure that’s ever happened before or after.
More amazingly, Hank Mason went on to play in the Negro League, starting the 1954 Negro League All Star Game. He even made it to the majors with the Phillies. More importantly, he became a Methodist minister. The Reverend Henry Mason was the assistant pastor at the church led by now-Representative Emanuel Cleaver.
With all these accomplishment, the city of Marshall honors Jim the Wonder Dog more than these two black men who grew up in Marshall. The funny thing is I never heard a negative word about Marshall from Hank or Wilson.
The shocker came from one of Wilson’s former students at Lewiston, Kent Rinne. Kent played football at Nebraska Wesleyan University. They traveled Marshall to play Missouri Valley University. They arrived in Marshall on Friday and checked into a hotel. However, with four black football players on their team, they were asked to leave. The hotel did not allow blacks.
In the 24 hours they spent in Marshall, the team ate all their meals out of a bag. No restaurants would host a team with four black players. Kent told me as the bus drove around the town square, many of the store fronts displayed signs, “No Blacks Allowed.”
As I told this story to the librarian in Marshall, she was very surprised. The Wesleyan football team played in Marshall in 1967 or 1968. That was five or six years after the Supreme Court ruling desegregating public schools.
At first, I wondered if the Wilson Fitzpatrick story would be without conflict. I couldn’t find any negatives anywhere until I really got into the research. Now I have an amazing story of two black Marshall athletes that are appreciated and loved by many, but unknown to the residents of Marshall.